shanties (singular "shanty", also spelled "chantey";
derived from the French word "chanter", 'to sing') were shipboard working songs.
Shanties flourished from at least the fifteenth century through the days of
steam ships in the first half of the 20th century. Most surviving shanties date
from the nineteenth and (less commonly) eighteenth centuries.
In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard
ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served
to synchronize the movements of the ship workers as they toiled at repetitive
tasks. They also served a social purpose: singing, and listening to song, is
pleasant; it alleviates boredom, and lightens the burden of hard work, of
which there was no shortage on long voyages.
Most shanties are "call and response" songs, with one voice (the shantyman)
singing the line and the chorus of sailors bellowing the response
Shanties may be divided into several rough categories:
- Long-haul (also called "halyard",
"long-drag", or "single-pull") shanties:
Sung when a job of hauling on a
rope was expected to last a long time. Usually one pull per verse, to give the
men a chance to rest. Examples: "Hanging Johnny," "Blow the Man Down."
- Short-drag (also called "short-haul", "sheet", or
"hand over hand") shanties: Sung when a job of hauling on a rope was expected to be quick.
Two or more pulls per verse. Examples: "Haul Away, Joe," "Blow the
Man Down," "Drunken Sailor."
Shanties: Raising the anchor on a
ship involved winding the rope along a giant winch, turned by sailors walking
Capstan shanties are anchor-raising shanties. They are typically more "smooth"
sounding than other types (no pulling required) and, unlike many other types
of shanties, frequently have a full chorus in addition to the
call-and-response verses. Examples: "Santianna", "Paddy Lay Back," "Rio
Grande (Away Rio)," "South Australia," "John Brown's Body," (adapted from Army
- "Stamp-'n'-Go Shanties": were used only on ships with large crews.
Many hands would take hold of a line 'tug-of-war' style and march away along
the deck singing and stamping out the rhythm. Alternatively, with a larger
number of men, they would create a loop -- marching along with the line,
letting go at the 'end' of the loop and marching back to the 'top' of the loop
to take hold again for another trip. These songs tend to have longer choruses
similar to capstan shanties. Examples: What do you do with a Drunken
Sailor, Roll the Old Chariot. Stan Hugill, in his Shanties from the
Seven Seas writes: "(Drunken Sailor) is a typical example of the
stamp-'n'-go song or walkaway or runaway shanty, and was the only type of
work-song allowed in the King's Navee (sic). It was popular in ships with big
crews when at halyards; the crowd would seize the fall and stamp the sail up.
Sometimes when hauling a heavy boat up the falls would be 'married' and both
hauled on at the same time as the hands stamped away singing this rousing
- Pumping Shanties: All wooden ships leak somewhat. There was
a special hold (cargo area) in the ships where the leaked-in water (the bilge)
would collect: the bilge hold. The bilge water had to be pumped out
frequently; on period ships this was done with a two-man pump. Many pumping
shanties were also used as capstan shanties, and vice versa, particularly
after the adoption of the Downton pump which used a capstan rather than pump
handles moved up and down. Examples include: "Strike The Bell," "Shallow
Brown," "Barnacle Bill the Sailor," "Lowlands." See
Her Johnny Leave Her.
- Fo'c's'le (Forecastle)
Shanties: Shanties sung for fun.
Down To Old Maui. As these were not sung during work, they are sometimes
not referred to as "shanties", but rather as forebitters or simply as
||The above categories are not absolute. Sailors could (and
did) take a song from one "type" and, with necessary alterations to the
rhythm, use it for a different task. The only rule that was almost always
followed was that songs that spoke of returning home were only sung on the
homeward leg, and songs that sung of the joys of voyaging etc., were only
sung on the outward leg. Other songs were very specific. "Poor Old Man"
(also known as "The Dead Horse") was sung once the sailors had worked off
their advance (the "horse") a month or so into the voyage. Leave Her, Johnny
Leave Her (also known as "Time for Us to Leave Her") was only sung during
the last round of pumping the ship dry once it was tied up, prior to leaving the
ship at the end of the voyage.